This 61st meeting of the International Whaling Commission began with a wonderful medley from Madeira’s Mandolin Orchestra, the oldest such in Europe. It brought back memories of a former time when families sat around the radio, imagining themselves stepping off a train into a crowded street where music played and people danced in each others arms, waltzing, round and round. What primal pleasure it evoked, entrancing the room. If only the mood had remained. Chairman Hogarth, to his credit, was choked and practically in tears at the end when he said farewell, telling everyone “I consider y’all my family” as he handed the baton on to Chile’s Commissioner, confessing that he didn’t know whether to sing or dance, and wishing him and everyone luck in the task ahead. Sadly, he forgot to mention that the task ahead is precisely that which he had in front of him when his tenure began 3 years ago; with one foot mired in mud and the other stepping onto quicksand. No-one could doubt the sincerity of Chairman Hogarth’s intentions, or his gratitude for being allowed to hold onto his job when the new US Administration took over, but the simple truth is, like so much else that came with the Bush era, and despite the standing ovation that accompanied his exit, he failed.
The morning of the last day of this shortened week provided a perfect example of the delusional state Chairman Hogarth has been in. Last night, as you’ll recall, he ducked debate over Denmark’s modified proposal to kill humpback whales, deferring the issue until today in the belief that he could wrangle consensus in a private Commissioners-only meeting first thing this morning. Not a chance. The only thing that came out of the secret confab was a decision to tell the Secretariat to spend at least £60,000 on an intercessional meeting, to be held somewhere (Santiago, it turns out) before the start of Greenland’s next harpoon season, to settle that sole issue. The £60k is just the cost to the Secretariat, and you’d have to calculate the cost of bringing representatives from scores of countries scattered around the world to Chile (because just about everyone will want to be there) to come close to the cash that will be squandered on what is quite possibly going to be a fruitless exercise. And to get anywhere near the real cost, you’d have to add in the carbon footprint, certainly huge, that will nudge the jewel that is this planet we inhabit, in the direction of Mars. As Chairman Hogarth himself might have said, it’s enough to make a grown man cry.
So all we have from this annual exercise in futility is a vague promise to keep holding hands as we wend our way towards a Shangri-la that lies in the distance as ephemeral as a desert mirage, a perfect conclusion perhaps, to a forced vacation in paradise. After all, the next stop is Morocco. As the Russian Commissioner remarked, there at least, we’ll get to see Casablanca (quite possibly humming “as time goes by”.
None of this is to say that there are not encouraging signs popping up here and there amidst the debris. Climate change is now a big deal in deliberations of the Scientific Committee, and is increasingly mentioned in debates on the floor. Moreover, the initiative of Australia to undertake a systematic programme of non-lethal research in the southern oceans, is not only endorsed by the “like-minded” community of nations, it has stated goals that have the blessing, without dissent, of the Scientific Committee. These developments clearly represent a significant step forward. Australia, bless her, is clearly willing to back the intent (to show there is a different way to do whale science than counting bodies) with serious funding. Two major research cruises, in collaboration with New Zealand and other partners are already planned for this year, and more will follow. A new path is being opened, and (dare one say it) through that path a way to the future may be found.
As Chairman Hogarth said in his last words to this fractious and fragmented body, there’s hope, hope, hope.
For more information & insights about IWC 2009:
photo of Dr. Sidney Holt by Tim Holt